By Peggy Wuenstel
There is a constant drive in education to find the magic bullet, the secret recipe, the cutting edge approach that will magically turn a failing school into a flourishing one. Just like the late night commercials that advertise miracle weight loss solutions, I believe that if there were a magic formula for either, we would all be using them. What I have also come to understand is that it is the people, not the programs that make schools work. I have been blessed to work in one of those places where the team truly comes together. The team jersey I wear as a Washington Golden Eagle is the next of those things that I know I’ve got before they’re gone. People often ask me: “What makes your school different?” After all these years it has become evident to me. It is the teaching team with which I suit up for the work of guiding children every day.
There are two other elementary schools in my district. One is much smaller, with a much more homogeneous student population and laudable student performance measures. The other is very similar to my place of employment, with similar enrollment, demographics, challenges, and surrounding community. Where we differ most is in the longevity of the “team” in place and in the consistency of the instructional approaches in play in the two schools. In an effort to raise student performance measures, the dedicated staff of that building has gone through many incarnations, including an inquiry-based charter, and a new foray into a reading program that is much more structured than the one in use in my school. I wish them well in their quest to improve student learning, but am grateful that our building focus has remained on the people vs. the implementation of programs. We’ve had little staff turnover in my 15 years here, and many of our new “draft choices” have been transfers from within the district. These are teachers with which we had already established working relationships.
I work with educators who have already made the mindset shift to the absolute necessity of individualizing instruction. What happens when a child fails to learn here is not seen as a lack within the child, but within the range of approaches that we have attempted thus far. Resource and child assistance teams are not just the doorway to referral services (guidance, tutoring, reading or math interventions, or special education) but a way to problem-solve and enhance universal classroom instruction. Lack of benchmark attainment does not mean NOT, it simply means NOT YET. Our building goals have consistently targeted our highest need populations through good instruction and appropriate small group interventions. When teachers are committed to assisting children with performance gaps, instruction improves for all students because it is systematic, purposeful, and directly tied to assessment.
The environment is highly inclusive at Washington Elementary. Students with challenges (English Language Learners, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Autism Spectrum Disorders, children who have experienced childhood trauma) are fully integrated into classrooms. The techniques and supports in place to aid these students in meeting grade level expectations improve classroom climate and create access to learning for all. We have moved past the point of accommodating differences to valuing and celebrating the diversity that our students bring to their classes.
We have had the luxury of administration at the Board of Education, superintendent, and principal levels that understands that this willingness to take responsibility for enhanced classroom learning requires quality professional development along with the time and support to implement it effectively. It also necessitates the planning for assessment of its effectiveness, and the need for tweaks, additions, and deletions over time, and modifications when incorporated by different staff members. If we want custom-fit garments, we have to be willing to pay the tailor or the seamstress.
Another key piece is the continual improvement mindset we have adopted for ourselves and others. Getting better is what the process of education is all about, and we must be models of that for our students. Where we often differ is in how best to document that growth and forward movement. How delightful it is when it is evident in the accomplishments of our students and the pride of the community we serve!
My fellow teachers have also demonstrated their willingness to choose strategies for their efficacy for students and alignment with classroom practice, district vision and standards rather than for convenience or ease of implementation. The art of teaching still lies within our ability to make those good instructional decisions. The best way to know that a program is not for me is when the sales rep tells me, “It’s so easy to use that you don’t even have to think about it.” I always used to say that when I got to that point it would be time to retire. I’m delighted to say that I’m ready to retire and still actively thinking about what I present to students each day.
My principal is also our district’s head football coach, and sometimes he can overdo the sports references. We tend to prefer the family metaphor to the team moniker. It’s more like wearing the t-shirt at the family reunion than suiting up for the big game. It’s not as much about the competition and winning, or even about getting better, harder, faster or stronger. It’s about being a contributing member of the team, and knowing your role in the play we’ve called for the day. I’ve earned my team jersey. I wear it with pride, and I’m definitely packing it for the next leg of my journey.